Dialogue Winter 2012
Blind Veteran Wins Paralympic Gold
By David Block
For Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder, September 7 is a day that he will never forget. On that date in 2011, he lost his vision while serving in Afghanistan. Exactly one year later, he won a gold medal swimming the 400 meter freestyle at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London, England.
No Regrets about Serving
Snyder has no bitterness about losing his vision. “I was willing to make that sacrifice, and that kept me from being bitter,” said the 28-year-old Snyder. “I knew the risks.”
On that fateful September 7, Snyder and members of his unit were patrolling from village to village. “We were partnered with Afghan army soldiers,” said Snyder, who had been deployed to Afghanistan five months earlier. “Unfortunately, two of the Afghan soldiers were injured pretty badly in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast. While attempting to render aid and rescue them from the battlefield, I stepped on a second IED, located within close proximity of the first blast site. The actual detonation occurred a couple feet in front of me, largely saving my body from the neck down. Unfortunately, the only irrecoverable damage was my eyes. Some of my friends (who served) are buried in Arlington Cemetery. I’m glad I’m still here.”
When he returned to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, he resumed swimming. He swam competitively for his local high school there, and then for the U.S. Naval Academy. His family and friends knew that he loved to swim, and he wanted to show that he could still do it. “I also wanted them to know that I was doing okay, and this was a good way of showing them.”
Swimming without vision was an easy adjustment. In the navy, Snyder often had to dive under water wearing opaque goggles. “Underneath the ships, there was a lot of debris. There was filth on the bottom. We also dived at night, so I was used to not seeing in the water.”
The Road to London
In rehab, he met Rich Cardillo, Military Sport Program Coordinator of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA), located in Colorado Springs, CO. Cardillo told Snyder about the Paralympics and urged him to qualify in swimming.
After qualifying, he got an internship at RedOwl Analytics in Baltimore, MD. An acquaintance put him in touch with Brian Loeffler, Head Swim Coach at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
One of Loeffler’s former Loyola swimmers, 2011 graduate Philip Scholz, was blind. Loeffler coached Scholz at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.
When Loeffler met him, the coach had no trepidation about coaching Snyder. He knew that blind athletes could swim competitively.
“It was easy for me to describe something to Brad,” said Loeffler. “Because he swam competitively for many years, he knew exactly what moves and strokes I was describing.” Snyder practiced with some of Loeffler’s swimmers during the summer of 2012. The coach said that his swimmers appreciated Snyder and his efforts to win in London.
Snyder had some challenges in preparing for London. “It’s difficult to swim straight when you can’t see the lane lines,” said Snyder. “The largest challenge I face is keeping away from the lane line. I was in and out of the lane line quite a bit.” Another was counting strokes. Sometimes he would miscount. That is a minor problem for all blind swimmers because there is always someone standing on the deck outside of their lane, ready to tap them on the head with a tennis ball affixed to a cane to signal that they are close to the wall.
At the Paralympics, Snyder competed in the S11 classification, for totally blind swimmers.
He won gold medals in the 100 meter freestyle, 57.43 seconds, and the 400, 4 minutes 33.70 seconds and a silver medal in the 50 freestyle, 25.93.
His times were a tad slower than when he swam for the Naval Academy, but not because of his blindness. Until he started training for the Paralympics, he had not competed for seven years.
At the Paralympic closing ceremonies, Snyder served as the United States’ team flag bearer, because he received the most votes from his fellow team members.
He hopes to represent the U.S at future international swimming events, and hopefully the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For more information about USABA, log onto www.usaba.org